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From casino to conference room: the power of "tells"

From casino to conference room: the power of "tells"

Dani Kennedy

Senior Vice President, Client Success

May 1, 2020

A ‘tell’ in poker is a small human behavior that provides a lot of insight. If you are familiar with the game of poker (or even find yourself humming a Lady Gaga song) you know what I’m referring to. Most know the term as a way to indicate if a player’s hand is good or bad, based on said player’s reaction. From a straightened posture to abrupt speaking and impatience, these cues—both verbal and nonverbal—help reveal information to base the next play.

From this definition, tells benefit the other players more than the person who is giving away the tell—but leveraging tells applies to backdrops outside of an Ocean’s 11 movie. Try swapping ‘Casinos’ for ‘Conference rooms’ and you'll see how tells become tremendously helpful when communicating with colleagues and building relationships with clients. 

Why ‘Tells’ Are Helpful for Teams

In client meetings, it’s helpful to understand the tells of each of the individuals on your team—whether they want to continue talking, or interject and add value to the conversation. They're so important that understanding tells when you’re sitting across the table with a client or potential customer can make or break a meeting. When tells aren’t recognized (be it from a colleague telling you to shift the conversation or the reaction a client gives in “I really don’t agree with you”), it can lead down a path that at times you can’t recover from.

Ok, but what if I don’t have a tell?

I have a tell and so do you. While the parallel may not be as clear as splashing poker chips, I use my tells at home when I need my husband to do something without the kids knowing what we are saying. I’ve used it with friends when I need them to suddenly decide it’s time to leave an event that’s running too long, and I use it at work as a way to help inform or guide a conversation. 

Throughout my career, I’ve discovered that having a tell and knowing other people’s tells can be a good thing - especially in meetings or user interviews. Knowing your team’s tells can help create and drive productive conversations or redirect the conversation when needed. 

Tells and Client Kick-Offs

A large part of consulting is the client interview process: dedicated time early in a new client-agency relationship to make introductions, determine a project timeline, and get clarity on project goals. This is also when consultants and clients uncover what success looks like for the team. In this interview process, understanding your clients’ body language, or tell, will help you know where you can go deeper in the interview, when to pull back, or how to steer in another direction. 

According to UX Researcher & Designer Matt Gramcko, non-verbal cues play a critical role in understanding your audience

“Whether it’s a user interview or usability test, empathy is the result of a holistic account of a person’s behavior. By learning to pick up on clusters of nonverbal cues from participants, the researcher can get to the heart of the issue or insight faster and more accurately.”

If you’re conducting an interview in our new all-remote world, pay attention to facial expressions—from both you and your clients. If video isn’t possible, make sure you focus your attention on tone, how someone is speaking (or pausing for considerable amounts of time), or answering a question. 

Below are five ways you can practice, which can also be applied over video conferences. (Slack created a great guide to conducting remote meetings in 2020.)  

3 Ways to Practice 

1. Watch and listen  

What do you notice? What behaviors do you react to, and what is that reaction? How do others receive and react to body language or tone of voice? What do you learn from people when they don't speak?

As most of us are working from home, here are some ways to observe non-verbal cues: 

  • When your teammates, roommates, or family is working, look at their posture: do they sit up straight in their chair, or are they tense?
  • When your teammates are on a call, how do they sit? Are their arms folded? Are they shifting around?
  • Do friendlier calls result in more ‘cameras on’ than the calls that are more serious?
  • Do you or other team members instinctively support or chime in?

2. Use Small Talk and Warm-Ups to Learn About Your Audience

When you are first meeting with a client or a team, it may not be easy to get a read. Two remedies to get acquainted are small talk and warm ups. 

Small Talk 

Allow a few minutes of casual conversation to get everyone comfortable with each other. You will quickly be able to identify the personalities in the room - ranging from more outgoing to quiet.

  • Identify those who are invested and can help drive the conversation later on. During your meeting, pay attention to those who lean in, and aren't afraid to provide starting thoughts
  • That being said, be aware of teammates who want to get down to the basic facts immediately. Small talk can be a delicate balance and knowing when to pivot into the actual work is critical to building continuity.
Warm-Up Activities 

When your clients engage with an activity prompt, they usually let their guard down -- and let their tell show. If you’re not sure where to get started, two helpful resources: 

  • Owl Labs has 9 Virtual Icebreakers for Remote teams - everything from funny icebreaker questions to games that work better for large groups 
  • Product Coalition’s 10 Fun Virtual Icebreakers to Take Remote Working to the Next Level

3. Become self aware.

One of the most important part of tells is understanding yourself, and how you communicate to others.

What about you? What do you notice about yourself around others when you aren’t speaking? Did you smile and not in agreement with a new idea or did you look away from the camera or focus your attention to jotting down a note when you didn’t align with a thought?

Only after you make your tell known to your team and they will know how to follow its direction. My team knows that if I say “I have thoughts” or “I have questions” where I will go and they are able to pick up where you left off in a way that seems seamless and very well prepared. 

The more you understand non-verbal communications, the more you'll learn about yourself, your colleagues, and your clients. Understanding these traits and tells will help you navigate conversations in the conference room (and maybe at a poker table, too).

Key Takeaways 

  1. Non-verbal cues are crucial in learning user behavior - both internally and externally with clients
  2. There are lots of ways to practice identifying tells remotely - starting with the people in your household 
  3. It’s helpful to understand your own tells: What do you notice about yourself around others when you aren’t speaking?


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